Horticulture labour shortage questioned

By Rodney Woods

A report by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences has led to debate about whether there is a shortage of labour in the horticulture industry.

The ABARES report titled, Demand for farm workers - ABARES farm survey results 2018, found only 18 per cent of vegetable farms and 14 per cent of fruit and nut farms had trouble filling vacancies in 2016-17.

Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Daniel Walton said the research showed the true motivation behind the Federal Government's expansion of the working holiday visa.

“This research blows claims of a labour shortage in horticulture out of the water,” he said.

“It is a fiction that is used to justify exploitative working conditions.”

VFF vice-president Emma Germano responded to the challenges horticulturalists face on Channel 10's The Project last Thursday night.

“It is of great concern that the current data driving the government’s workforce policy does not reflect the extent of the problem,” she said.

“The grave reality is that undocumented workers account for a large proportion of Australia’s seasonal harvest workforce.

“Farmers cannot share information that reflects this reality for fear of reprisal from government agencies.

“The VFF was well placed to undertake anonymous research on behalf of the industry due to its independence from the government and position of trust that allowed producers to share their understanding of the workforce.”

The VFF survey found there was a labour shortage across the Sunraysia growing region, even when accounting for the use of undocumented workers.

Seventy-one per cent of respondents believed they had undocumented workers on their property.

Furthermore, undocumented workers may account for up to 28 per cent of the total workforce.

“Sixty per cent of business operators indicated their intent to grow their business over the next five years, which will compound the labour shortfall if left unresolved,” Ms Germano said.

“The VFF has held up its end of the bargain and helped the government understand the extent of the issue.

“It is now up to them to provide industry with an agricultural visa and a meaningful solution to undocumented workers.”